“A story needs a beginning, middle and an end. Though not necessarily in that order.” Jean-Luc Godard’s quote presented itself in my mind as the speakers of the inaugural Real Talk x Write To Recovery event told their stories of lived mental health experience. Their steadiness in relating their experiences and acceptance of what they had learned was remarkable to behold, making the usually grand CCA Theatre a cosy cabaret space. Fairy lights turn each table into a campfire, hot tea is on tap throughout and the speakers are welcome to sit or stand as they tell their stories. In between each story is a minute or so of planned silence. The group collectively settles into what is not an awkward lack but a considered peace, relaxing into the safe and soothing atmosphere to share stories and learn by listening to others. 

Real Talk is the brainchild of Lily Asch, who was struck by how applying storytelling techniques to her lived experience of mental health aided her recovery. “Real Talk is all about promoting conversation, connection and compassion around experiences of mental illness. I came up with the idea of holding safe spaces for people to share their stories with an audience, but I didn’t want it to be an unsupported experience. So, I hired a professional storyteller to host two workshops with speakers beforehand so they would feel comfortable and prepared.” 

Each of these workshops last about two and a half hours, utilising storytelling techniques such as storyboarding and guided meditation. Write to Recovery also hosts many programmes and workshops throughout Scotland, placing the focus more on creative writing than oral storytelling, but the overlap between the two projects is clear and harmonious. This is the first collaboration between Real Talk and Write to Recovery, represented on the night by facilitators Emma and Erin, but they plan to do much more in the future. 

“Writing is such a useful tool in recovery,” says Lily. “It gives you space to ideate and to express without judgement or interjection. It helps connect dots and lends perspective. Creativity is a wonderful way to connect into yourself.” But Lily is under no illusion that this is a one-size-fits-all, miracle cure. “Recovery is a continuum. What works at one point doesn’t necessarily work at another time and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. But I think sharing those thoughts with others can be a really helpful step. Participation is always voluntary, so if at any point in the process you don’t want to continue, we completely respect and honour it.” 

Each speaker is composed in telling their stories, which detail some sensitive and upsetting issues, in such a way that can only inspire awe in every audience member, especially considering how far they’ve come after just a couple of workshops. Even the term audience member feels like a misnomer here, as there’s so little divide between us all, a bond readily but steadily fashioned, that the traditional ideas of a silent, passive audience fall away. This is a conversation where everyone is welcome. 

On my discussion table, we can’t stop once we’ve got started, thanks to the facilitation by Lily, Erin and Emma, as well as Rebecca, one of the speakers. I find myself laughing in recognition of how many common threads our various symptoms and behaviours have. I speak to a woman who hasn’t had experience of mental health difficulties herself, but has through her partner and friends, and wants to learn more and better help them. It can be difficult to identify an end to a particular difficult time or mental health episode but the techniques of storytelling, to frame experiences within the structure of a beginning, middle and an end, allows each storyteller to file that story amongst the many in the anthology of their lives. A few stories finish on an open-ended note but arrive at a place of understanding and awareness that seems to be the most robust coping mechanism for going forward in life. 

By the end of the evening, even I cast the last shreds of journalistic objectivity to the wind and join in with the writing exercise, a quick-fire round to share thoughts on the theme of ‘courage’. We can mind map, doodle, try a poem or short testimony. Sharing what we have after only six minutes, the group comes to a consensus that courageous acts rarely make you think you have courage – but then that’s the point. To feel the fear and do it anyway. You never know who you might help by sharing your vulnerability. 

by Emily Benita 

Emily Benita is a writer and performer who lives in Glasgow with her cat called Malcolm Tucker. She manages her depression and anxiety through a combination of medication, counselling and art, liberally applied. Tweets at @BenitaEmily.